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Refugee reactions show that South Africans stand apart from Africans

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

The distinction between an internally displaced person, a migrant and a refugee is not just a matter of semantics and legal definitions. Vanity plays a role too. DA leader Helen Zille’s wrongheaded comments about refugees have revealed how South Africans are eager to disassociate from issues affecting the rest of Africa.

Of course Helen Zille was wrong to characterise the Eastern Cape’s negative net migration as purely a function of the ANC’s failures in that province. Internal migration is a complex subject that has many determinants. Just as Zille did on HIV/Aids, she has focused solely on the politically expedient answer. But much of the migration to the Western Cape and Gauteng since 1994 has been a correction of the artificial imbalances created by apartheid-era policies. Other factors inform the migration too.

But I’m not sure which outraged the ANC and South Africa’s Twitterati more: that Zille’s refugee comment appeared to betray a belief that the Western Cape is South Africa’s last remaining colonial territory, or that she dared use a label associated with foreigners to describe her fellow citizens. Both, perhaps. And while the former has attracted most of the criticism, the latter is more interesting, because it reveals South African perceptions about the word refugee.

“To reduce South Africans, who have free movement in their own country, as refugees is tantamount to instigating against them by labeling them with a tag associated with foreigners,” the ANC’s Jackson Mthembu said, in rambling statement that appeared to have been hurriedly cobbled together between Human Rights Day dops. What actions Mthembu believes Zille was instigating with the remark is unclear, but what is clear is that the word refugee is a borderline slur only to be used to describe – and this is not too much of a stretch – other African migrants. After all, Africans constitute the majority of refugees around the world.

Before I am accused of mocking Mthembu for communicating badly in a language that is not his mother tongue, he has issued lucid, coherent statements before. He is, after all, the party’s national spokesman and has been for a while. So if accusations must be thrown around, they should be reserved for the ANC for putting Mthembu in the job and for him for accepting. Some enmity should also be reserved, too, for whatever it is that obligates Mthembu, and millions of other South Africans, to communicate in English, even when not comfortable with the medium. But I digress.

Mthembu is right, in a way. The word has its origins in describing those who cross borders fleeing religious, ethnic or other persecution. It also a legal status which describes those fleeing their home country, for whatever reason, and seeking refuge within the borders of another country. It was used in Kenya to describe the millions of Somalis who fled the famine in their home country. It was used to describe Zimbabweans who crossed the border into South Africa at the height of their country’s economic woes. But does the distinction that to be considered a refugee you need to cross a border make sense even if substantively, the underlying circumstances those concerned find themselves in are similar?

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in the United States, debates raged in that country about whether it was appropriate to describe evacuees from affected states as refugees. Al Sharpton took issue with the word and the pervasive use of the descriptor in the media. He said, “They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity. They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place.” 

An evacuee, Tyrone McKnight, said to the Washington Post, “The image I have in my mind is people in a third-world country, the babies in Africa that have all the flies and are starving to death. That’s not me. I’m a law-abiding citizen who’s working every day and paying taxes.”

So “refugee” has negative connotations because of the dire economic, social and political circumstance of the people it’s usually applied to. As with much of the reaction to Katrina survivors being described as refugees, some of the reactions to Zille’s remark, as incorrect as it was, revealed issues of self-image. South Africans, like Americans, have a strong sense of exceptionalism. While as many as half of the Eastern Cape’s migrants find themselves living side-by-side in informal settlements in Gauteng and the Western Cape with Somali and Zimbabwean refugees, they view themselves (and are viewed) as being better off, or in some way superior. The HSRC noted this exceptionalism as one of the contributing factors to Afrophobic attacks. However, South Africa and her citizens are becoming less exceptional with each passing year.

None of this though fixes the underlying problems that sparked the spat: the Eastern Cape is in crisis, and national government’s intervention appears to be failing. DM

Read more:

  • Calling Katrina survivors “refugees” stirs debate on MSNBC.
  • Migration and urbanisation in South Africa on StatisticsSA [pdf].

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